PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Like most people enduring a lengthy health crisis or an extended illness, Zane Wetzel knows a lot of medical terminology.
The Ohio native and Mars Hill resident talked in detail on Monday about upcoming skin-grafting surgeries and procedures as two therapists at County Physical Therapy in Presque Isle stretched, manipulated and massaged his injured arms, hands and chest, which suffered third-degree burns during an electrical accident last fall.
Wetzel also spoke of his extended hospital stays in Boston, of his family and of the support of his wife, Courtney. And while he grimaced in pain and gasped slightly at times during the therapy session, there were two words the 25-year-old never said:”Ouch” or “Stop.”
“Zane is just an awesome patient,” Adam Simoes, occupational therapist and director of workplace services at CPT, said Monday afternoon. “He is motivated, he works hard during therapy, and he goes home and does the exercises that we give him and works just as hard there. He endures a lot, and he never complains. It is amazing to see how far he has come.”
On Oct. 12, 2010, the apprentice lineman for Maine Public Service Co. in Presque Isle suffered a flash burn to 50 percent of his body while working at the MPS substation on the Parkhurst Siding Road. His chest, back, arm and neck were burned.
Brent Boyles, president and chief executive officer of Maine and Maritime Corp. and MPS, said Tuesday that an investigation into what happened during Wetzel’s accident has been completed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Boyles said that Wetzel was standing on a scissor lift when a charge of electricity arced and touched the corner of the lift. The electricity traveled to the ground and bounced back, burning him. The safety equipment prevented Wetzel from being electrocuted, Boyles said. He added that OSHA has requested that the company conduct refresher safety training, which Boyles said the company has started.
He was in a drug-induced coma for more than a month in the intensive care unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He has endured an estimated 10 surgeries, including several operations to graft skin from his legs onto his burns. In November, he was transferred from Brigham and Women’s to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He spent two weeks in that hospital and remained in Boston for outpatient therapy before coming home at the end of January.
Now, Wetzel spends up to 2½ hours a day, five days a week, at County Physical Therapy. He is being assisted by a team of therapists that includes Simoes; Paul Marquis, a physical therapist and vice president of clinical operations at the facility; and Jonas Bard, who is also a physical therapist. While Wetzel was at the rehabilitation hospital, Simoes left Presque Isle and traveled to the facility to spend two days observing the care he was getting from the therapists in Massachusetts.
“I wanted to do it so that when Zane came back, we could hit the ground running from Day One,” Simoes said Monday while working with Wetzel on low-load, long-duration stretching. The exercises slowly stretch and extend his limbs to help give the 25-year-old better range of motion and mobility. In the long term, Simoes explained, such exercises also will improve his quality of life.
“When Zane got back from Massachusetts, we started right in with the stretches and exercises,” he continued. “There was no time lost between what he had been doing out there and what we started doing here.”
‘Above and beyond’
When Wetzel arrives at CPT, therapists spend up to an hour rubbing his chest and arms with a special cream to moisten his skin so that it can stretch better. The rubbing also brings blood flow to the soft tissues, according to Marquis. While patches of skin on Wetzel’s chest and arms are smooth and supple, the burn site is tough and leathery. He said Monday that it doesn’t hurt to touch or rub. He also suffered nerve damage in his right hand from the accident.
“I barely have any feeling in it,” Wetzel said. He can feel tingling in a few of his fingers, but others are numb. The loss of sensation is so bad that he recently dropped an object that he was holding and did not even realize it until he heard it hit the floor. Simoes said it can take a year or more for nerves to regenerate and Wetzel could get the feeling back in his hand. The accident also damaged his hearing slightly, so he likely will need hearing aids.
Simoes and Marquis said Wetzel never complains, but they have gotten to know him so well that they can tell when he is in pain by reading his body language. During stretching, he lies on his back on the table, with his legs bent and his feet flat on the table.
“When Zane lifts his toes off the table, that is a sign that he is in pain,” Simoes said. “This is painful. It is not easy. But we need to do the stretching because his skin is so tight from all of that time he spent immobilized in the coma, and also while he was healing from the grafting surgeries,” Marquis explained. “As the skin tightened, it limited his range of motion.”
Courtney Wetzel comes to therapy whenever she can. As she watched Simoes and Marquis work with her husband on Monday, she was quick to express how grateful she is to them.
“They have gone above and beyond,” she said. “They have taken this personally. They have customized this to get him the best possible results. It is just amazing.”
The 22-year-old has been by Zane’s side since just minutes after the accident. She never left him while he was in Massachusetts, and only recently went back to work full time. The two met as teenagers at a leadership camp, and even though he lived in Ohio and she lived in Maine, they kept in touch and were engaged when Courtney was in college in Michigan. They married in 2008.
When Zane is at home, he spends an hour or more a day doing stretching and other exercises. It is easier for him to use his less badly injured left arm, so he concentrates on using his right more and more. In December, he could barely lift his arms to touch his face. Now, he can raise his arms so that he can touch the top of a refrigerator. He does so at home in order to stretch his arms and chest.
“We are surprised at how far he has come,” said Marquis. “It is because of his drive and tolerance to pain that he has come as far as he has. He has a long road ahead of him, but is well on his way.”
Simoes agreed. He estimated that Wetzel will need at least a year of physical therapy.
“But he’s healthy, he was active before the accident, and he’s spiritual,” he said. “All of those things work in his favor.”
The Wetzels’ deep Christian faith as Seventh Day Adventists is something they feel has been instrumental in helping Zane heal. Since returning to Maine, they have spoken about their experience and their faith at a number of churches in southern Aroostook County. The requests keep pouring in, and Wetzel said he enjoys speaking.
“It gets easier every time I do it,” he added.
After the intense stretching, Wetzel begins a segment of cardiovascular and weight training. Simoes, Marquis and Bard have him working out on a treadmill, elliptical machines and arm bikes, as well as using weight machines and lifting free weights. All of the exercises, Marquis explained, have helped to increase his mobility.
Working out on the elliptical machine Monday, Wetzel said he remembers very little about the accident or its aftermath.
While in the drug-induced coma, he suffered intense fevers. Wetzel said his sedation would sometimes wear off, waking him up for a few seconds at a time. When that happened, he said, his thirst would be raging and his body, he said, felt as if it were boiling.
“I thought I was in Mexico,” he said. “I was so hot and thirsty. And I couldn’t speak because of the tracheotomy. I would have paid $1 million for a glass of water and I kept trying to tell them that, but no one could understand me. At the same time, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying to me. It was like they were speaking a foreign language.”
These days, Wetzel is only looking forward. He has been driving again for approximately three weeks, and he does many of the exercises at CPT on his own. He is still underweight after losing 30 pounds in the hospital, but is eating better and has gained back 10 pounds. While he works out, he thinks of his next big goal — going back to work.
“People at Maine Public Service have been so supportive, and I want to go back,” he said, anticipating a full recovery. “I probably will work part time to start, but eventually I plan on going back full time.”
Brent Boyles, the MPS CEO, said Tuesday that the company has implemented more training in light of Wetzel’s accident. Company officials also will hold a “Safety Stand Down Day” in the near future to offer even more education about safety.
For now, Wetzel will continue therapy until his next surgery in April, which also will be in Boston. He will spend approximately five days in the hospital. After that, it is back to Maine and his work with Simoes, Marquis and Bard.
“They’ve really been great,” Wetzel said with a smile. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.”